District withdraws land lawsuit
DeSoto Board of Education members decided to withdraw a lawsuit against 70 Shawnee residents after two of those residents accused the board of "bully tactics" at the school board meeting Monday night.
The school district filed suit against the residents to clear the deed for the Monticello Kindergarten Building, located at 71st Street, near Crest Street in Shawnee. The building was built in 1923 and was acquired by the DeSoto School District when it expanded to parts of Shawnee several years ago.
The building has not been used by the school district since 1998 and, according to school officials, would need major renovations before it could be used again.
Consequently, the district wants to sell the property and invest the money elsewhere. Before it can sell, however, the deed must be cleared.
The district owns most of the approximate six acres outright, but the tract of land on which the building sits was deeded to the district's predecessor in 1923 by two women, with a stipulation that it could be used only for "school purposes."
If the land were used for anything other than a school in the future, the deed specifies, it would "revert back to the tract of land of which it was originally a part."
According to John Vratil, attorney for the school district, the original tract of land has since been subdivided into approximately 50 separate tracts of land owned by 70 different people. According to the law, each of the 70 residents could claim ownership to an equal portion of the two acres if the land was sold.
Vratil suggested that the board pursue a quiet title to the land and the board agreed.
Vratil sent letters to the 70 property owners, informing them that they had been named a defendant in a lawsuit. Vratil said because each resident owned only a small part of the land, he anticipated that most would not bother to answer the lawsuit and the district would get the land by default. He explained his reasoning in the letter to residents.
"The school district anticipates that many, if not all, of the property owners named as defendants herein will not respond to this petition, such that judgment by default will be entered by most, if not all, of the defendants," the letter read.
Two of the residents, however, came before the board Monday night to say they were insulted by the board's actions.
"I had to sign for a certified letter to find out we're being sued by the DeSoto School District," Steve Dickerson said. "I take that very personally. I think the situation was handled poorly by the school district. I not only take it as a slap in the face, I take it as a spit in the face."
Dickerson said the matter could have been handled outside the courts by requesting a quick claim deed
from each of the residents, stipulating they would turn their portion of the land over the district. The fact that the district chose instead to file a lawsuit, Dickerson said, caused him unnecessary problems.
As a part of his job Dickerson must obtain insurance underwriting services. A default judgment against him would make that more difficult, he said.
"They ask questions on those applications like, 'have you ever been a defendant in a lawsuit or have you ever had a judgment against you,'" he said. "I don't know if you guys understand the ramifications of a lawsuit.
"If these are the bully tactics you guys are using then I think it's shameful. This could have been solved with a letter, a 33-cent stamp and a quick claim deed," he continued.
Gary Rothrock was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. He agreed that the district handled the situation poorly.
"This is stupid," he said. "You don't maintain the property anyway. There are weeds everywhere. If you want to get rid of the land then you should sell it to the city of Shawnee for a dollar and let them make a park out of it. If you did that, I think the bad taste left in our mouths about the lawsuit would go away."
Vratil told the residents he took full responsibility for the lawsuit, and in hindsight, he too thought the situation could have been handled better.
"I apologize," he said. "I recommended the board do what it did. In fact, there is an alternate way to handle this and I propose that we ask residents to sign a quick claim deed and if they do, we dismiss the lawsuit."
Board members told Dickerson and Rothrock they did not realize when they agreed to a quiet title action that it would involve a lawsuit. They instructed Vratil to withdraw the suit and to send letters to the 70 residents, asking them to sign quick claim deeds.